Ida Lupino was just 14 when she became a Hollywood starlet. If you’re thinking that’s kind of a lot for a teen, you’d be surprised.
Part of a British acting dynasty, Ida wasn’t like other girls her age. She’d been prepped for a life in the limelight since she was old enough to read, so her family got her learning lines.
Fast forward a few years and Ida, now barely out of tweendom, was headstrong and self assured; unsurprising given that her acting had been helping pay her family’s bills for years!
So when Ida landed her big break, with the lead role in 1932’s, Her First Affair, she took leading an entire film in her stride; no big deal.
What was a big deal was the role Ida was playing – you see, very underage Ida was playing a nymphomaniac, who spent her time chasing men while wearing not a great deal.
Oh… and it was a role that Ida’s mother had originally auditioned for.
Somehow, despite the icky-ness of it all, Hollywood had taken notice of Ida’s, er, ‘grown up’ performance. Just not in the way you might think.
Weirdly, Paramount wanted Ida to play Alice (y’know… the young innocent girl) in their new mega expensive film adaption of Alice in Wonderland (life lesson: never try and make sense of Hollywood decision making)
Slight problem: Ida didn’t want to play Alice.
Ida didn’t see herself as Alice. She wasn’t wide eyed and naive, she was smart, independent and desperate to be taken seriously as an adult.
So Ida did what any teenager would; she dyed her hair bright blonde and wore as much makeup as humanly possible.
After this, it’s not exactly surprising that Paramount cast another girl as Alice.
Still, Paramount saw something in Ida, soon signing her up to an iron clad contract.
And so, Ida found herself trapped on the Paramount lot, playing dumb blonde after dumb blonde.
2 years into her contract, Ida was over Paramount.
Ida hadn’t come all the way to Hollywood to spend her days playing a brainless glamazon. She wanted to play bold women that made their own stories. Not only that- but she wanted to write, produce and more than anything, she wanted to direct.
Sadly in the 1930s, becoming a female director was much like becoming a unicorn (AKA: Never. Gonna. Happen!)
With the directing dream dead, Ida decided that if her only creative outlet was acting, you better bet your arse she was doing it her way.
So, in 1937 she did the unthinkable; she walked out of her contract.
Barely 20, Ida had gained a lucrative studio contract, lost it (along with a heap of money) and been banned from the lot of one of Hollywood’s biggest players.
Obviously, Ida didn’t let this get to to her.
She took time off to study, returning 2 years later in, The Light That Failed, and this time you best believe she wasn’t playing a bimbo but an actual character!
Ida continued to hustle and by the mid 1940s she not only had control of the roles she played, BUT was also known as one of the best dramatic actresses of her era.
So naturally, Ida decided to become a director
Now, As discussed, this was an impossible dream! Let’s put it in context: In 1943, the sole female in Hollywood’s directors guild (Dorothy Arzne) had retired. For the next 5 years, no major film in Hollywood was directed by a woman.
I repeat: From 1943-1948, no major film in Hollywood was made by a woman. The idea that this was changing anytime soon was, quite simply, impossible.
But when had impossible ever stopped Ida Lupino?
In 1949, Ida wrote Not Wanted, a drama about the then incredibly taboo topic of unwanted pregnancy.
Three days before the film was set to shoot, the director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a massive heart attack and couldn’t continue with the project.
Ida stepped up.
She directed The Unwanted at the last minute on a budget of basically $0, using her own wardrobe for costumes and repurposing any thrown out sets she could get her hands on.
AND she did all this whilst simaltanously fighting off censors who were at never before seen levels of horrified; not only was a film showing unwanted pregnancy, but a woman was leading the film!! Surely this scandal would not stand with audiences!
Sadly for the censors, Not Wanted went on to make millions.
On the back of The Unwanted’s success, Ida set up her own production company, The Filmmakers, alongside her then husband, Collier Young. Ida wanted her production company to be different, making films that tackled social issues other people were too scared to touch. So, Her next film, Never Fear, did just that. Giving an unflinching look at life with polio (an epidemic then sweeping America)
BUT Never Fear bombed at the box office. It turned out audiences wanted escapism, not a gnarly polio flick.
Still, in typical Ida fashion, she didn’t let this mammoth setback hold her back. Sure, Never Fear may not have broken the bank, but it was exceptionally well made. A fact Ida used to bag herself a three picture deal at RKO.
Ida Lupino was now Hollywood’s top (and pretty much only) female director.
She was also one of the only directors with the balls to tackle some seriously sensitive material. In her time at RKO, Ida’s films delved subject matter including rape, sexual assault and gender dynamics.
Ida didn’t stop her casual groundbreaking with her films subjects. In 1953, she became the first female director to direct a noir.
The Hitch-hiker saw Ida’s unparalleled handle on the human psyche, match with a tense noir, fit a breathless tale of two men trapped in a car with a serial killer. It remains one of the best film noirs ever made:
But after The Hitch-hikers success, Ida was starting to feel a little screwed over by RKO. She wasn’t seeing anywhere near the money her films produced.
And so, just like she’d she’d done when she was 20, Ida cut ties with the Hollywood machine and went solo.
She made her production company, Filmakers a fully independent machine that could make AND distribute its own films.
This would prove to be fatal.
The Filmmakers first film, 1953s, The Bigamist, soon saw Ida and the company drowning in a never ending money pit. With Ida leading the creative, her now ex husband and business partner Collier Young led the money side of things.
Yeah; turns out Collier sucked at that.
He constantly lost investment, overspent and despite being the one to push the idea of doing their own distribution… had no idea how to do it.
By 1955, The Filmmakers was kaput and Ida wouldn’t direct a film again for over a decade.
Yet (as always) Ida didn’t let this latest defeat stop her.
She moved onto the small screen, starring in a CBS sitcom (the horrifically titled) Mr Adams and Eve, with her new husband, Howard Duff.
The series was popular BUT Ida wasn’t able to go behind the camera. In fact the mere notion of Ida directing an episode – therefore being her husbands boss – caused massive tension between Ida and Howard.
This was a theme in Ida and Howard’s marriage. Ida’s success as a director rankling Howard, who just wasn’t ok with his wife doing what was still seen as a man’s job.
But Ida continued despite her husband
Over the 50s, 60s and 70s, Ida directed countless TV shows, including The Masks, a now iconicly creepy episode of The Twilight Zone (for which she was the series only female director)
Ida also went back to film. With her last directing credit, 1966s female driven comedy, The Trouble With Angels.
Now guys, I’m afraid the last part of Ida’s story is far from a happy ending.
Resilient though Ida was, she wasn’t made of steel. She’d started getting a drinking problem during her marriage to Collier Young, and the collapse of their production company.
Her drinking only got worse during her marriage to Howard Duff. And though the pair split in the 1970s, Ida could never shake her drinking habit.
Then Ida reached the age where her friends started to die. Soon she was suffering more and more regular bouts of depression.
When Ida’s Mum died, she just shut down; retreating into herself, barely leaving her home.
In 1995 Ida Lupino died following a stroke.
History has remembered Ida Lupino as an actress, but her real legacy is as one of films most groundbreaking directors. Forging a path for female directors as well as indie film makers.
She also bought the topics of sexual violence and gender into the mainstream AND ensured women got to tell their own stories.
Yet Ida’s influence is largely forgotten. Perhaps, unsurprising when 69 years since her directorial debut, just 1 in every 22 directors are women.
Which is why Ida’s story is so vital. It’s a legacy that needs to live on today, helping in the almighty push for women in film; after all there’s one thing we can learn from Ida it’s this:
nothing is ever impossible.
That was interesting, where can I find out more? Well, definitely check out Ida’s films, which still stand up today. I’d also suggest listening to the episode on Ida, on the fantastic Hollywood history podcast: You Must Remember This.